WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday that economic sanctions would be more effective than diplomatic overtures in bringing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.
"Perhaps if there is enough economic pressure placed on Iran, diplomacy can provide them an open door through which they can walk if they choose to change their policies," Gates said on Fox News Sunday.
"I think the two go hand in hand, but I think what gets them to the table is economic sanctions," he said, commenting on diplomatic efforts to neutralize the nuclear plans of Iran and North Korean.
Gates clarified the Pentagon's view that Iran may have enough low-enriched uranium from centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility, but it does not have the capability to enrich the material further to weapons grade.
The U.S. government suspected Iran could be "clandestinely" building an enrichment capability, he said, but added:
"We do not believe they are doing enriching beyond a low level at Natanz, and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) is in there, so we will know if they tried to do that."
In separate comments on Sunday, the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said Iran and the United States shared common goals in stabilizing Afghanistan.
"They don't want to see the Taliban and the extremist elements that sought sanctuary there before return to running that country," he said on CNN's "State of the Union" program.
"They want to see a reduction in the flow of the illegal narcotics that has trapped many of their own citizens in addiction," said Petraeus, who commands U.S. forces from the Arabian Gulf into Central Asia.
President Barack Obama announced a new war strategy for Afghanistan on Friday that will focus on eliminating al Qaeda militants in the rugged Afghan-Pakistan frontier region.
The Obama administration hopes to engage Iran on Afghan issues at a U.N. conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on Tuesday. Iran said on Thursday that it will attend the meeting proposed by Washington with delegates from 80 nations.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, underlined Iran's interests in a stable Afghanistan on the same CNN program.
"In 2002 they helped stand up the Karzai government. They hate the Taliban and they need stability on their eastern frontier," Holbrooke said.
Despite "enormous differences" with Washington over its nuclear program and support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Holbrooke said "the door is open for Iran to participate in international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan."
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Patricia Zengerle)